The debate over building and operating a tri-county bus rapid transit system on Interstate 275 won’t be settled for months.
But, on July 1, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, known as HART, will launch a new limited express bus service down I-275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa.
Connections also can be made to existing routes operated by Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority with services to Largo, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
The 275LX route will be a first for regional transit in the Tampa Bay area. It also will be a test of the regional potential for bus transit.
Funding for the new route is from about $1.2 million in grants from the Florida Department of Transportation. Funds are expected to cover operating expenses for 18 months.
“We’re very excited about this service,” said Steve Feigenbaum, HART’s director of service development. “We have very high hopes for it.”
Route 275LX largely will follow Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Interstate 275.
Feigenbaum said this service is separate from a proposed “catalyst” project for a bus rapid transit system that would travel on dedicated lanes built on the shoulders of I-275.
The Florida Department of Transportation funded a study that prioritized a 41-mile bus rapid transit system from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg. Initial construction estimates were nearly $455 million.
Supporters hope that bus rapid transit can jumpstart a long-range transit vision for the area. Opponents say the project is too limited, too expensive, and won’t, by itself, address traffic gridlock.
A decision on bus rapid transit is expected in the coming months.
Meanwhile, major stops on HART’s limited express service will include Tampa International Airport, the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, the University Area Transit Center, the Westshore business district, and the Marion Street Transit Center in downtown Tampa.
According to a HART news release, residents and businesses, especially in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel, asked for the bus route. It is considered a boon for employees commuting to and from work across county lines, and for area residents who want to visit dining, shopping or entertainment destinations in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
HART estimates about 123,000 residents live within the service area.
Transportation from Pasco to the veteran’s hospital in Hillsborough is an especially important benefit to the area, said Kurt Scheible, director of Pasco County Public Transportation (PCPT).
“I get requests all the time on how can we get people down to the veteran’s hospital,” Scheible said. “I think this is a great step forward.”
The July 1 start is a soft opening, with an official ribbon cutting at Tampa International Airport scheduled for July 13.
HART buses will pick up passengers at the Route 54 bus stop operated by PCPT. The bus stop is located at the Wiregrass Park-n-Ride, at 28222 Willet Way, near Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel.
The Wiregrass bus stop is the “backbone” of Pasco’s transit system, with the kind of ridership that makes it a perfect fit for HART’s new route, said Scheible.
HART’s operating hours will be seven days a week, generally from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with buses leaving hourly. Bus fares will be $2 each way. Free WiFi is available on the bus ride.
PCPT’s Route 54 operates only six days a week, with no buses running on Sundays. Weekday hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., for east/west service from Universal Plaza in New Port Richey to Zephyrhills.
Major stops are at Medical Center of Trinity, The Shops at Wiregrass and Tampa Premium Outlets.
However, the Wiregrass Park-n-Ride is open seven days a week for residents taking a ride on HART’s buses.
New services are coming in the future, including the expansion of Flamingo Fares, a mobile application for regional bus passes, Feigenbaum said.
It is available from HART and the PSTA. In the next months, Pasco and Manatee County’s transit systems also will provide the mobile app and regional bus passes.
“It will be seamless, built into all the systems,” said Feigenbaum.
Published June 20, 2018